Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A weekend in Amsterdam

I do a lot of complaining (on this blog and in person) about my lack of European travels, despite living right smack dab in the middle of the continent. So last month I finally got B and myself off our collective butts and booked a few days in Amsterdam as a 3-year anniversary treat.

Hey, look, we're in another country!
 It was wonderful. Honestly, I wasn't sure whether Amsterdam would be 'our' type of city - we had no interest in recreational drugs nor did I feel the urge to visit the Red Light district (for sightseeing or other purposes). It turns out I shouldn't have worried, because I do like and appreciate wonderful architecture, impressive museums, amazing meals, and canals - and Amsterdam provided all of those in abundance.

Ignore the daily, intense (but brief) rainstorm looming in the background.
 We arrived on Friday afternoon and found our hotel without incident. We stayed halfway between the city center and the airport (due to an early morning departure flight), at a Citizen M hotel. The prices were reasonable (hence why we booked it), and we found the place clean, welcoming, and very modern design - not a bad thing, but it may not be everyone's cup of tea. Everything in the room - the shades, rainbow option of lights, tv, temperature, etc - was controlled by a universal remote, which techie B thought was very cool. The rain shower and toilet are contained in their own little "pods" - I found the shower funky fun, but felt a little claustrophobic in the toilet. Basically we had fun with the hotel, but it's the type of thing I imagine my technophobe mother would have nightmares about (love you Mom!).

Picture taken from the Citizen M website, as if someone was sitting on the bed (or outside the window, even - the sense of space is a bit misleading). The shower pod is open on the right, while the toilet can be seen through the one in the center of the picture.
The first night we just wandered around and ended up spending 2 hours in Waterstones, an English bookstore near the Spui tram stop. After 18 months in a German-speaking world, it was four floors of heaven, and only B's reminder that we would have to pay for a checked bag on the way back to Zurich stopped me from going crazy (I did pick up one book and a package of oat biscuits, which we later ate with yummy Dutch cheese).

For dinner, we ate at a place recommended by our Lonely Planet guidebook, D'Vijff Vlieghen. I loved the decor & interior of the 17th century canal house, but found that we were largely surrounded by large groups of other tourists and the food was underwhelming (not bad, just not very exciting). 

The next day, we met a college friend of mine for a late breakfast at and were thrilled when she presented us with museum passes, allowing us entry into most museums for free, as well as vouchers for a canal cruise. We wandered through a Dutch street market (so many cheeses and flowers) on our leisurely way down the canals to the Rijksmuseum. We quickly found a place for lunch just before the skies opened up. Selling itself as a Peruvian restaurant, Mashua's lunch menu was reasonably priced, but had only one actual Peruvian dish, although the seasonings on the beef sandwich were reminiscent (and freakin' delicious). We were very happy with our food and cost, although one couple at a table next to us left after having no service for quite some time.

The Rijksmuseum was amazing and overwhelming - there's no way to see all of it in one trip (similar to the Louvre, although smaller in size), so we wandered randomly, making sure we hit a few highlights. I loved it - more than just paintings, they also feature sculptures, figurines, 17th century dollhouses, and one crazy huge model ship. It was busy but was large enough to handle even a summer Saturday crowd without feeling claustrophobic.

One of my favorite paintings in the museum, although I can't say exactly why. Do I need a specific reason, though? It's just so pretty!

Zoom shot of the model ship, which was at least 2 meters long. Very cool.
That evening we took a canal cruise, which I loved and B (mostly) slept through. I simply couldn't get enough of the city's architecture - each building is different from its neighbors, but the overall similarity in shapes gives the city a wonderful symmetry.

Amsterdam as viewed from the water.
 After encountering several full restaurants, we ended up having dinner that night at Vlaming. Simply put, it was amazing - the type of restaurant that we always hope to find on our trips. We started out with their 23 euro sampler appetizer plate, which seemed expensive until they brought out a 3-tier tray with dozens of treats on it. SO good. Our main courses, steak and duck, took a while to arrive (the waitress was very apologetic) but were worth the wait, and we finished off with a sticky toffee (they called it a pie, a translation mistake that we didn't realize until they served us sticky toffee pudding, the British dessert). Go there - go there NOW.

Three levels of deliciousness.

The next day we managed to fit in a visit to the Van Gogh museum before meeting my friend to return the passes. To be completely honest, I'm not a huge Van Gogh fan - I love Starry Night and his painting of irises (which, btw, were originally purple, as irises should be - apparently the type of red pigment Van Gogh used fades over time), but it's a museum I never would've gone to if we hadn't had the passes. But I was so glad we decided to go. It was crowded (more so than the Rijksmuseum), but not distractingly so. The museum does an excellent job of laying out Van Gogh's progression as a painter - it was fascinating to see his art grow and finally blossom into what I think of as 'his style' (bright colors and thick, swirling paint), and all over the course of only 10 years (did you know that?! He only painted for 10 years - I had no idea!).

Sunday afternoon, we took a leisurely walk around Westerpark and happened upon a very active food/street fair. Unfortunately, we'd already had lunch so we couldn't take advantage of the dozens of different ethnic cuisines available - Greek, Peruvian, Turkish, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, gelato (ok, we did have some of that). It smelled amazing and made me wish that Zurich had such a celebration of other cultures' foods (perhaps it does, I just don't know about it).

There were several other sites we didn't get to - Anne Frank's house and the Dutch Resistance Museum were probably my other top two - but our feet couldn't have handled much more walking, and B likes to remind me that vacations are supposed to be relaxing ventures, not all-you-can-see adventures. I suppose we'll just have to go back...

Sunset over the harbor.
Now excuse me, I have to go pack for Vienna. :)

Monday, August 18, 2014

What's a Twinkie?

Many people assume that B and I met in school or, at the least, somewhere in the US. We didn't, of course, but that doesn't stop people from assuming B is either from or has lived in the US for a significant amount of time. He hasn't. And that fact often leads to conversations like the following.

The scene: It's a normal Sunday, which means that B and I are hanging out inside, with our Rollbladen down to block out any potential sunlight (nothing else positively identifies that we are not authentic Swiss more than this - no Sunday nature hikes for us!).

B is using his headphones to listen to a podcast about gaming by Total Biscuit, a British man with an American wife. He begins to giggle to himself.

Me: What are you laughing about?

B: This guy is talking about when he visited his wife in the US. Apparently, she had him eat a deep-fried Twinkie [link NSFW due to language].

Me: Yech, that sounds about right. She probably took him to a state fair. <returns to reading>

There is a pause of several moments.

B: Hey, so...what's a Twinkie?

Me (in all my cultural understanding): YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT A TWINKIE IS!?? How can you not know what a Twinkie is?

B: Is it like some sort of pastry?

Me: No. Ok, yes, but only in the vaguest sense. You wouldn't recognize it as such.

Several days later, I confronted him about his lack of Twinkie knowledge and he defended himself.

B: Well, I'd heard of Twinkies, I just didn't really know what they were. I thought they were chocolate dipped sausages.

Me: EWW, that sounds disgusting! Why would anyone make that? It would taste so gross!

B: Exactly! I thought that's why people said they were gross. And I was like - well, yeah, they're meat dipped in chocolate.

Me: Actually, that would probably taste better than real Twinkies. Touché.

PS: Apparently sausage+chocolate has been tried (more common is the bacon+chocolate trend).

PPS: If you don't know what a Twinkie is, may I suggest revisiting this classic scene in Ghostbusters:

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hiking Mt. Rigi

I made a list last month. But then again, I make a lot of lists. Daily, weekly, monthly to do lists; grocery lists; lists of goals, baking lists, wish lists. Lists of things I want, quotes from people (famous and not), character ideas, random queries. You get the idea.

But this list was about getting up and doing things - and it has succeeded in making me do just that. It's easy to get in a rut when you live somewhere - when I lived in Boston (10+ years), I managed to get to the MFA (which was right down the street) only 2 times, never made it to the Harbor Islands, and rarely ventured to any of the lovely little towns outside the city limits.

As the days speed by here in Switzerland, I was starting to despair that I would find myself in the same predicament, never venturing further than the grocery store and the well-worn sidewalks of Bahnhofstrasse. Hence, the list.

The list is supposed to take place over the course of almost 3 years, and I have no idea how many goals I'll reach. What I do know is that I have used it as the push I needed to get out and explore. I've been down streets in Niederdorf I'd never seen, I've tried  three new coffee shops (guys, one of them has red velvet everywhere - the seats, the walls, the decor - even the ceiling. It's like walking into what I imagine is a 1920s speakeasy - I'll cover it in another post).

Number 5 on my list is "Hike a Swiss Alp." I figured this would be a distant goal, once I had obtained chiseled arms and sculpted calves - I was fairly confident such things were required for scaling a mountain.

So, when a friend offered to take me into canton Schwyz (her home) with her stepfather for an afternoon of driving around rural Switzerland, I jumped at the chance. I figured we'd drive around, ooh and ahh over the cows and scenery, then I'd return to Zurich and tell B how nice it was.

The night before I got a message from her asking if I had hiking shoes. I hesitated, then texted back, "I have some hiking boots (?). I bought them for strapping on snowshoes last winter." She replied Boots? Hmm, ok, that should work and I should bring them because we were going to do a very easy, flat hike (her emphasis).

First lesson of the trip: I've heard the Swiss before talk about "hiking shoes," and I wasn't sure what it meant; in my mind they were like running shoes - sneakers with some slightly thicker soles. But all I had were enormous Columbia boots that, in my mind, were better equipped for feet of snow, so that's what I brought. Turns out "shoes" are a Swiss euphemism; both my friend and her stepfather pulled out their own pairs of huge honkin' boots that are (apparently) standard fare for hiking any time of year.

Second lesson: It turns out that you don't have to be mountain goat-adjacent in order to hike a Swiss alp. Many of them are equipped with cable cars, cogwheel rails, and various other contraptions to spirit you (partway or entirely) up the mountain, allowing you to choose both difficulty and length of your hike. As with most other things in Swiss life, it's efficient, considerate, convenient (and expensive - but totally worth it).

We ended up doing a beautiful 2-3 hour hike along Mt. Rigi, which is crisscrossed with several trails, allowing both exploration and challenges. The weather was gorgeous - creamy, puffy white clouds, a constant cool breeze, and scenery that constantly left me slack-jawed.

None of the pictures below have been altered, enhanced, or changed in any way (partly because I am too lazy to go through each one with iPhoto, partly because I want to share exactly how beautiful it was, unretouched). There's also a few more pictures on my Instagram account, if you care to take a peek.

Just some random Schwyz countryside. It was all this beautiful.

Pretty sure I'd live here if it was an option.

Once I saw this, I suddenly understood why the Swiss go hiking every Sunday. Why yes, I would love a beautiful view without breaking my ankles to get it.

I was right about one thing - there were SO MANY COWS. This one doesn't have a bell around its neck, but most of them did. The bells can be heard for hundreds of meters, making them a constant background accompaniment of the hike (so neat!).

View of Kleiner (left) and Grosser (right) Mythen, the postcard-perfect standard images of canton Schwyz.

On the cable car, looking towards Lake Zug (I think).

Canton Schwyz

Looking south(ish). Visible glaciers!

This lady was hiking in a dress, with a stroller and some slightly-glorified Keds. She was kicking butt, but it couldn't have been too much fun when going through the cow fields..

Looking back over where we've come from. One of the many little Alpine huts/farms/restaurants around. Adorable, functional - and convenient if you need some cheese (or other snack) for an energy fix.

Overlooking the Vierwaldstättersee (in English referred to as Lake Lucerne, but I prefer the German, translated as "the lake of four-forested cantons").
A larger alpine hut - restaurant in the bottom, a few overnight rooms up top.
Lake Lauerzersee in the background

View of the glaciers with the zoom lens.
Last view of the Mythen before taking the cogwheel railway down.